Deconstructing the national exam

Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, October 05 2013, 9:08 AM

As many had predicted, the two-day national exam convention ended with what the public saw as a rather disappointing consensus: the national exam is still needed as an instrument for measuring the final learning achievements of students.

Despite facing harsh criticism from education experts and teachers represented mainly by the Indonesian Teachers Union (PGRI), the Education and Culture Ministry is adamant that the implementation of the national exam ought to be retained.

That opinions from teachers and education experts went unheard or ignored should come as no surprise. It is not the first time critical voices have been suppressed in the policymaking process of national exam implementation.

In its last decade of implementation, the national exam has always been replete with brouhaha, with public criticism falling on deaf ears.

The ministry’s insistence on maintaining the national exam as the sole testing tool nationwide and its defiance of critical insights from convention participants serve to indicate several important things.

First, the national exam has been used clandestinely as a bureaucratic mechanism to monopolize and homogenize utilitarian knowledge-making practices.

Elana Shohamy (2006) views such a mechanism as an ulterior endeavor to create a “de facto” educational policy and to elide knowledge in multicultural societies.

As the UN is imposed on all schools nationwide without exception, diverse knowledge developed from the grassroots is severely restricted and demoted. In such multicultural societies, Shomamy envisions a democratic principle of having testing of the people, for the people and by the people.

Furthermore, the ministry’s dominant role in the national exam suggests the dissemination and imposition of a bureaucratic ideology on the public — a suppressing ideology that cajoles them into believing that standardized state-mandated exams are trustworthy, valid, dependable, fair and infallible.

Here the intention is that both teachers and students are treated as what Shohamy calls “bureaucrats”, not “professionals”.

Through the maintenance of the national exam, the ministry exercises and perpetuates its power (and hence the power of the national exam) to hegemonize and legitimize the educational policy it has made, proscribing any resistance from those having no power. In a more extreme analogy, teachers are deliberately made powerless “servants” whose function is simply to implement the agenda of the powerful.

Finally, the sustainability of the national exam is maintained due to its power as a gate-keeper to sort out those who are considered academically competent and incompetent, and then to exclude the incompetent ones.

While it is true that the discrimination index has commonly been employed as the criteria of a good test, in the context of a highly centralized national exam, with participants hailing from diversified knowledge traditions, the yawning gaps created by the exam serve to mirror unfairness and unethical conduct.

If the national exam has been used as a political mechanism to help sustain the legitimacy of the authority, then debates over whether or not it should be scrapped from the national education system from a sole pedagogical perspective need to be reconsidered.

A radical perspective from which to interrogate the usefulness of the national exam is now badly needed. This perspective can draw insights from the philosophy of liberal knowledge-making, which can not only challenge the existence of the national exam and question its value, but also politicize it.

This perspective can therefore complicate the implementation of the national exam. It goes beyond queries related to the technicalities of the exam, such as the real value of the exam, its validity and reliability, its efficiency in the printing and distribution process, and the possibility of cheating.

What the above perspective encourages is issues related to the interrogation of power relations and ideological bases underlying the construction of the national exam, the interests served by its implementation, the democratic processes included in its construction (the involvement and collaboration of stakeholders with shared authority), and the transparency in and public accountability of its program evaluation.

This reorientation is vital and must be made explicit at the outset, given that the national exam is a high-stakes test, and more importantly, that it is always used as a covert mechanism to hegemonize power and control and to spread bureaucratic ideology uncongenial to the democratization of knowledge-making processes among teachers and students in multicultural societies.

The writer is an associate professor at Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta. He is also chief-editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching.